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Tuesday, 25 September 2012

The secular trinity, a family history

Traditional Holy Trinity design.
I often do not watch the ABC's Q and A but I did today so I found out a bit about Jason Silva, who sat on the panel as a futurist. Jason had both the panel and the audience cracking up because of the way he spoke and because, for him, the solution to everything seemed to be "technology". Even when he was not invited to speak he'd be breaking into the conversation with this wicked, wicked word. It was like a talisman he wore around his neck that everyone could see at all times. And, sure, he talked about smart handheld devices, air travel, the human genome, whatever. But he also talked about written language as a technology and in this he slightly veered away from what is normally understood by the term. But he's right of course, and others agree with this analysis.

There was a great Scientific American blog post, for example, by Bora Zivkovic in 2010 that talked about the parallel emergence, in the West, of science and a free press. And I want to add democracy to those two things to achieve some sort of trinity of phenomena, and I want to place in the centre (see image) the human artefact - the technology - of written language. If you can imagine this arrangement of things then we are on the way to looking at what I had in mind when I started writing this blog post.

But first I want to emphasise that there's nothing hubristic about this arrangement; I can describe it because knowledge of this kind is freely available through reading history and literature. But you have to go back some way, to about the time of my earliest known forbear, Thomas Coldicott, who was born in 1610 CE. He was a husbandman and was buried in 1664 in Ilmington, Warwickshire. That's about all I know of him, though of course he would have married a woman and had children (otherwise I would not be here today). A "husbandman" was someone who looked after a herd of cows, and so he was indeed a substantial person in his time, possessing a measure of wealth. He may have held public office. What he would have been able to do that his own grandfather probably could not do, was read books.

When Thomas was 10 years old Francis Bacon's "new method", the Novum Organum, was published, and this text quickly became the foundation of the scientific method. The 17th century sees many new scientific discoveries emerging in Europe, along with a plethora of cheap newspapers that brought together news of events in Europe of interest to the average person. Then when Thomas was 39 years old, in 1649, the king, Charles I, was put to death by public beheading by Parliament for his sins. This dramatic break with tradition marked a turning point for democracy because it cemented in custom the shift of power away from the person of the absolute monarch into the hands of the people's elected representatives. Sure, the Commonwealth quickly disintegrated when Cromwell died, but Charles' grandson James II would rule for just on three years before being deposed, at Parliament's urging, by the protestant William of Orange. The king was made to suit Parliament, and not, as in earlier times, vice versa.

Goodness only knows what Tomas Caldicott made in his mind of the death of Charles, but he would have read about it in the newspapers, of that we can be certain. He might not have cared much about the establishment, in 1660, of the Royal Society, but Thomas' great-grandson John Caldicott, a ribbon manufacturer who was born in 1742, would have been very aware of technological changes altering the economics of manufacturing in England, causing social disruption and large-scale movements of people away from rural areas to growing cities. His son, also named John, was born in 1790, and grew up during a time of war caused by seismic political changes in Europe that threatened to sweep monarchy away from the continent forever. And finally John's son Alfred Jolly would quit England in 1853, along with his son Robert Henry, following news from the colony of New South Wales of the discovery of precious gold in the earth, to forge a new life in a new continent.

Cemented to the outline these scraps form, in fact embedded within the weave of these lives, are the three pillars of secular modernity: a free press, democracy and the scientific method. During those years these three elements functioned in concert, and without one of them the advance of secular modernity would have halted. But times, it appears, have changed, so that nowadays, in the 21st century, it appears to be possible to select, carefully perhaps, which among these elements a country wishes to stencil to the substance of its human fabric. While Thomas Caldicott or any of his descendants would have been thrown back into poverty or even into civil conflict by the omission of even one of the elements of my humanist trinity, today the president of Egypt, let's say, can choose to adopt just two of them. In China, also, it appears possible to get by on less than the full set; in fact there you apparently only need one of the elements of this trinity to achieve material prosperity.

But I wonder how long these types of balancing acts can last in the face of demands for popular sovereignty that are implicit in the nature of the underlying technology of written language. Problems such as how to attract foreign investment and how to encourage innovation make themselves evident. Investment requires political stability, and innovation requires a free press. Countries like Egypt or China can of course continue to import knowledge and new technology but the trend is for the best minds to seek a better life balance and more opportunities through migration to places where diversity of opinion, and the freedom to express it, is tolerated by custom.

And custom emerges over time. To illustrate this we can look at Robert Henry's grandson, William Henry, with a wife, Carrie (nee Morgan), who was born in 1880 and would become one of the first women ever in the history of the world to lodge her vote for the local MP of her choice in the first federal Parliament of Australia. Not a suffragette, certainly, but entitled should she have had the inclination and the means, to herself stand to be an elected representative of the people, in Melbourne, to debate the issues of the day, and to see her words printed in the evening newspaper. And their daughter, my grandmother Phyllis, would be born in 1906, one of the first generation of free gentlewomen, who would, discarding violently the claims of custom followed by all her Anglo Saxon forbears, marry a Portuguese migrant from Africa who, my father, his son, wrote in his memoir, believed "that the British knew the best way to govern and both he and Maria Nazaré (his sister) desired to have English spouses and live in English speaking countries". It could have been America that gave him shelter, or Canada, but it appears he was on a ship on his way to East Timor when he got off at the dock in Melbourne, and stayed. It was 1924. I wonder where Jason Silva's forbears came from, and when they arrived in America.

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